David Bowie – 'Up The Hill Backwards'
Raymond Depardon's 'Glasgow'
When Raymond Depardon photographed Glasgow in 1980 as part of a feature for The Sunday Times he was expected to point his camera at whatever shoots of regeneration might have been visible in a city lurching slowly forwards in some kind of notional recovery from deindustrialisation. Instead he chose to visit the very heartlands of that industrial decline and photographed the harsh realities of poverty and struggle. It has taken some thirty six years for those photographs to finally be collected in a published form, and whilst they certainly record a Glasgow that feels familiar and real to me I’m also conscious of the fact that they perhaps ask more questions than they answer. For example, at what point does a stereotype become a reality, or vice versa? At what point does truth become cliche?
This was the era of ‘That Sinking Feeling’ of course, and Depardon’s photographs feel very much in step with the Glasgow captured by Bill Forsyth in his film. Both are typically drenched in West of Scotland rain, both physically and metaphorically. Think of Forsyth’s boys sheltering in an abandoned car or of the opening scenes in the rain overlooking Kelvingrove Park. Depardon’s photographs too routinely depict soaked streets and glowering clouds. It all looks wet, windy and cold. The world is harsh; the people oddly resilient and strong in spite or because of it all. As I say, truth and cliche. Reality and stereotype.
If there is an ever-shifting, uneasy yet symbiotic relationship between truth and cliche then it is certainly present in many of Depardon’s photographs. Tenements appear derelict, desolate and yet also punctuated by colour (both physical and spiritual: pinks of dresses; purples of bubblegum; reds and greens of doorways and shopfronts; the occasional Vauxhall Viva). In contrast the tower-blocks of the urban renewal are resolutely grey and menacing. One wonders if Depardon was consciously referencing Ian Nairn who famously suggested that "In the Gorbals, Robert Matthew’s blocks wouldn’t say boo to a goose and Basil Spence’s monolith is saying boo to everything.” Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Drunks appear in Depardon's photographs with alarming regularity. Of course they do. It’s Glasgow. And what were we saying about truth and cliche? They lurch on street corners; they slump beside off-licence windows and by bookmaker’s doorways; they scuffle in the street near Central Station and on Argyll Street; they huddle next to a fire of cardboard boxes squabbling over a bottle of Eldorado. Hard people living hard lives in hard times. Cliche and truth living cheek by jowl.
As an aside, three years after Depardon took his photographs I was in my first year at the Macintosh School of Architecture. One playful brief was to design a ‘statue for Glasgow’. My proposal was a Daily Record paper seller astride the Kingston Bridge standing as a colossus with a can of Export in his pocket. Somewhere I may still have the small photograph on which I crudely painted my vision. It was scrappy, ridiculous and yes, filled with cliche but I recall that my charismatic tutor Bill Murdoch loved it. Coincidentally that same year we were given another brief to design a house in an empty lot beside the Briggait. Every time I am in Glasgow I revisit the site to see if anything has sprung up. It hasn’t. Yet in Depardon’s photo from 1980 a four storey block still occupies the space and I assume that Bill would have remembered the building too. Perhaps too he would have known the Wee Man bar at the junction of Clyde St, Gorbals St and Bridgegate; later renamed the Clutha and then of course to enter Glasgow history as the site of the tragic 2013 helicopter crash.
As another aside let me tell you another story from 1983. Christmas approaching, Glasgow Central station. Me an architecture student sitting on a bench waiting for a train home. Next to me the ubiquitous drunk scadging money. ‘Hey big man’ he asks. ‘Spare some change?’ I have to shrug and pull out my pockets. ‘Sorry pal’ I reply ‘I’m skint.’ To which he instantly responds with a handful of coins and an earnest ‘do you need something to get by?’ Harshness and kindness, truth and cliche.
Certainly in the early 1980s you did not need to stray from the centre of Glasgow to see the kinds of visions captured by Depardon or to meet the kinds of people I encountered on the station benches. Perhaps this was true of most cities of the time as they all attempted to make the transition to the post-industrial landscape, but in Glasgow it always felt particularly close to home. It is something I did not realise that I had perversely loved most about the place until I returned in the mid 1990s after five or six years away. Streets seemed transformed: Every other shop front a hairdresser or restaurant. Where once people sold things now they sold services. A strange kind of heart appeared to be missing, and whilst I acknowledge that personal context as well as historical change has an impact on my reading of the city, this feels to me to be a shame.
This is not to suggest that the desperations of the people shown in Depardon’s photographs do not still exist. One rather suspects they do, but that they are now excluded further to the outer environs, more hidden from view than ever before. Poverty and prosperity are no longer permitted to exist quite so close together. Here or anywhere. And if the cliche of Glasgow has perhaps moved on and morphed somewhat into one that is more urbane that urban, more culturally significant with an educated edginess than ever before, then so be it. Perhaps that is for the better. Perhaps not.
Certainly the state of flux between truth and cliche continues to ebb and flow. What’s changed? Everything and nothing.
I appreciate that there is some conflation between 1980 and 1983 in this piece, but such is the way of the world of memory and experience. Roots and blossoms. Moments and reasons. So let me tell you that in 1983 I also spent time writing ridiculous stories and rudimentary fanzines. The audience for these was strictly the few friends with whom I shared bicycle rides and home-brewed beer, yet I look back fondly on those long lost artefacts as being the sparks from which my fire for writing sprang. Blame and thanks in equal measure? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
The first ‘book’ I wrote in 1983 was called ‘Careers In Modern Love’ and was closely followed by it’s sequel ‘Up The Hill Backwards’. Thinly veiled declarations of love, obsession and daydreams, they were also flimsily fictionalised documentaries of our everyday lives as cyclists and teenagers. As I recall there was a heavy influence of Sue Townsend coupled with a hefty dose of postmodern meta-narrative. Except at the time I just called that ‘the authors voice’, which actually may also have been informed by The Beano. It’s possible. What’s definite is that the titles were a nod to David Bowie.
What is left to say about David Bowie, particularly at this point in 2016? It has all been said, often with more insight and intelligence than I could ever summon. My favourite pieces of commentary inevitably came from friends. Robin on his personal memories; Everett’s extended and marvellously meandering treatise ‘troubled diary of a David Bowie fan’; Alexis’ eloquent eulogy for The Guardian; Peter’s surreal Sooty homages for whoever stumbled on them.
You are probably delighted to hear that I have nothing else to add. Except: ‘Let’s Dance’ was the first Bowie record I really knew about and yes, I loved it and I love it still. I do not care if that somehow marks me as Not Really A True Fan. Fuck truth, after all. Besides, the opening of ‘Modern Love’ can still give me goosebumps which are as much to do with memories of friends lost and lips not kissed as anything so meagre as musical content.
Except: ‘Ashes to Ashes’ was actually the first Bowie record I really knew about and that was as much to do with the vision of him dressed as a Pierrot walking through some kind of surreal new romantic post-apocalyptic wasteland as anything so vague and meaningless as sound. Was it diluted by connection to the telly series decades later? Was it buggery.
Except: ‘The Laughing Gnome’ was really the first Bowie record I knew about thanks to Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart and the Junior Choice show. Combined with ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ and Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’ to form the holy trilogy. Perhaps. Perhaps not. But Sooty would certainly have approved.
And ‘Up The Hill Backwards’? It’s a song. I like it a great deal. It’s from 1980. It’s a memory that took root and I still like to glance at the blossom it provides. What else could possibly matter?